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Education Still Eludes Many Pakistani Girls

An internally displaced Pakistani girl from a tribal area attends her daily lesson at a madrassa, a school for the study of Islam, on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, April 6, 2015.
An internally displaced Pakistani girl from a tribal area attends her daily lesson at a madrassa, a school for the study of Islam, on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, April 6, 2015.

Peering into their social studies books, Pakistani girls face images of traditional gender roles.

Girls are depicted as cooks in textbooks, while boys are teachers or engineers, observed Madiha Afzal, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution in global economy and development.

Education, which can be a driver for gender equality in a male-dominated society, supports traditional gender roles that diminish girls instead. At least in many textbooks, Afzal said.

“Girls don't actually understand what they can do beyond school,” Afzal said. “They don't understand that they can actually work.”

Over 3 million girls do not attend primary school in Pakistan, according to a 2013 UNESCO report. Worldwide, 31 million girls of primary school age are out of school. Of these, 17 million are expected never to enter school.

Afzal said many Pakistani parents want their daughters to obtain an education but face many obstacles to do so. Like Humaira Bachal, whose mother wanted her to go to school.

But, “her father hit me,” when Humaira sat for Grade 9 examinations, said Humaira’s mother while sewing a piece of cloth, to the Pakistani news agency Dawn. “He did not want a girl leaving the house for her education.”

Pakistan Daily Life
Pakistan Daily Life

That didn’t stop Humaira’s mother. She often covered for her daughter when the father inquired. Neither of them had enjoyed education.

“Education is essential for women.” Humaira’s mother said. “They have reached this position today because of their education. Otherwise, they would have also been slaving away for their husbands somewhere.”

Early Marriage

Child marriage is another obstacle. What might be done to secure finances for a child can do quite the opposite. Approximately 1 in 5 girls in Pakistan are married before age 18, said Rebecca Dennis, senior legislative policy analyst at Population Action International (PAI), an organization focused on affordable, quality contraception and reproductive health care for women.

Early marriage interrupts a girl’s formal education. Once married, girls are soon expected to have children and look after the household, Dennis said.

Girls who attend primary school are more likely to wait to get married after age 18, and they are more likely to prioritize education for their daughters. And, even if girls want to attend school after marriage, they are often restricted by local or school policies in Pakistan, Dennis said.

Poverty is another factor. In households where resources are scarce, education is often provided to sons first, who are considered more lucrative than daughters. When family income hits a bump, school enrollment declines for boys, but disproportionately more for girls, Afzal said.

The lust for a boy child to bring in wealth to the household drives parents to give birth to multiple children, leading to lack of education for the girl child. Often, she sits at home looking after younger siblings.

Safety concerns

Safety and honor are other factors. In 2014, more than 1,500 rapes, 2,170 kidnappings and 713 “honor” killings were reported in Pakistan, according to Benazir Jatoi, legal advisor Aurat Foundation, a nonprofit “to create a just, democratic and caring society in Pakistan,” where women and men are recognised as equals. “Aurat” in Urdu means woman.

But these numbers don’t represent the entire picture. An “unimaginable” number of cases are never registered to maintain the honor and marriageability of the girl, said Neelofar Nawab, law clerk at Tully Rinckey PLLC, a law firm in New York.

If a girl has to cross hamlet boundaries to get to school, she must be accompanied for her protection by a male relative, who loses a day of wages walking her, Afzal explained. Many families cannot afford to do so.

Pakistan Daily Life
Pakistan Daily Life

Lack of infrastructure and government support is another issue. Although, the implementation of the Right to Education Act in 2010 mandates the state to provide education for all children between 5 and 16 years old, gaps remain, Afzal said.

Only 2.6 percent of Pakistan’s annual GDP is invested in education, according to a 2015 World Bank report.

Pakistan’s political instability has also prevented governments from focusing on education. In the 70 years since Pakistan’s creation, no prime minister has completed full term.

“When [politicians] see a shortened time horizon, what they need to do is … deliver, and actually have something to show for the votes that they want their constituents to give them,” Afzal said, “so they’ll build a road rather than improve a school, because improving a school is less visible.”

Lack of functional and private toilets are another problem preventing some girls from attending school in Pakistan, Afzal explained.

But the situation has and continues to improve, Afzal said.

In 2003, the Punjab province of Pakistan introduced the Female School Stipend Program (FSSP). The program offers 2,400 rupees, ($40 USD) per year to families of schoolgirls in grades six to 10 who lived in one of 15 target districts with low literacy rates, Afzal said.

Pakistan Daily Life
Pakistan Daily Life

The girls are required to attend school at least 80 percent of the time to receive the stipend. By 2014, the FSSP covered 393,000 pupils.

In Sindh, a province in southeast Pakistan, efforts are being made by the state’s education board to partner with private enterprises to operate co-ed primary schools that are tuition free. This program has also increased girls enrollment, Afzal said.

Humaira Bachal, who had to fight for her own education, started a school for more than 1,000 students, where she teaches in the underrepresented neighborhood of Mawach Goth in Karachi, according to a Dawn News documentary.

Parents were initially adamant that their children work in factories, instead of attending school, Bachal said. At least with that, they would bring Pakistan rupees 60 ($0.6 USD) at the end of the day, they said.

But, things have changed, Bachal said.

“People have started realizing that this small mistake can ruin their child’s future,” Bachal said before recalling her mother’s support.

“Whatever I am today, is because of her,” Bachal concluded.

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Australian, Chinese university chiefs meet in Adelaide

FILE - Students walk around the University of New South Wales campus in Sydney, Australia, Dec. 1, 2020.
FILE - Students walk around the University of New South Wales campus in Sydney, Australia, Dec. 1, 2020.

Australian university leaders held talks Wednesday with their Chinese counterparts over the Canberra government’s plans to cut the number of international students. Australia has said the reductions will ease the stress on housing and reduce immigration.

Representatives from the Group of Eight Universities, which represents large research-intensive institutions in Australia, met Wednesday in Adelaide with leaders from the China Education Association for International Exchange.

The Chinese delegation included senior officials from 22 leading research-intensive universities in China.

In a joint statement, the two groups said that “our research and education links not only deliver enormous economic and social benefits for both countries, but also foster enduring people-to-people ties.”

The talks focused on “constructive dialogue focused on challenges and opportunities around university research in a fast-evolving, globalized world.”

One major challenge is Australia’s plans to cap the number of international students it allows into the country to relieve pressure on housing and rental accommodation in the major cities. It is part of a broader effort to reduce immigration.

In 2023, official data showed that 787,000 international students studied in Australia, exceeding levels seen before the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the tertiary sector says plans to shut out some foreign students would cost the economy billions of dollars.

Vicki Thompson is the chief executive of the Group of Eight Universities. She told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Wednesday that it is unclear how far international student numbers would be cut.

“At the moment there is a lot of unknowns about what this will actually mean. We are in very good discussions with government, though. They certainly understand the impact that our international education sector has on tourism, on the economy. So, you know, they do not want to bust it either. It is just how can we come to, I guess, a compromise position where, you know, we do not damage one of our most successful export markets,” she said.

Most overseas students in Australia come from China, India, Nepal, the Philippines and Vietnam, according to government data.

Under the government’s plans, colleges and universities would have to provide purpose-built accommodation for international students if they wanted to exceed the caps on numbers.

Specific quotas for foreign students, however, have not yet been made public by the Canberra government.

Australia’s plan to curb the number of students from other countries is expected to be discussed when Chinese Premier Li Qiang meets Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Canberra next month.

Some shuttered universities appear to reopen on the web 

FILE - A magnifying glass is held in front of a computer screen in this picture illustration taken in Berlin, May 21, 2013.
FILE - A magnifying glass is held in front of a computer screen in this picture illustration taken in Berlin, May 21, 2013.

At least nine universities that have closed appeared to be looking for new students on the web, but the schools are neither accredited nor cleared to accept student aid.

In a USA Today investigation, Chris Quintana looks at what might be going on with the imposter websites. (May 2024)

Taliban push for normalizing male-only higher education

FILE - Taliban members are seen at Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 14, 2023.
FILE - Taliban members are seen at Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 14, 2023.

In coming weeks, tens of thousands of students in Afghanistan are set to sit for university entrance examinations.

Notably absent from the list of candidates will be females.

The upcoming exams are expected to determine the admission of about 70,000 students to public academic and professional institutions this year.

Last week, when officials from the Taliban's Ministry of Higher Education unveiled the specifics of the upcoming exams, they conspicuously omitted any mention of the exclusion of female students from university admissions.

Despite facing widespread domestic and international criticism for their prohibition of women from educational and professional opportunities, the Taliban have persisted in enforcing discriminatory gender policies.

“The exclusion of women from higher education significantly limits the country's economic potential, as half the population is unable to contribute effectively to the workforce,” David Roof, a professor of educational studies at Ball State University, wrote to VOA.

In December 2022, the Taliban suspended nearly 100,000 female students enrolled in both public and private universities across Afghanistan.

With the nation already grappling with some of the most dire female literacy rates globally, Afghanistan has failed to produce any female professionals over the past two years.

According to aid agencies, the absence of female medical professionals, compounded by other restrictions, has contributed to the deaths of thousands of young mothers in Afghanistan.

The United Nations reports that over 2.5 million Afghan school-age girls are deprived of education.

“The interruption in education can result in a generational setback, where entire cohorts of women remain uneducated and unqualified for professional roles,” Roof said.

'Hermit kingdom'

The elusive supreme leader of the Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzada, purportedly responsible for the ban on women's education and employment, has never publicly clarified his directive.

Initially, when secondary schools were shuttered for girls in March 2022, Taliban officials said the action was "temporary," insisting that the Islamist leadership did not fundamentally oppose women's education.

However, more than two years later, Taliban officials have provided no rationale for the continued absence of girls from classrooms.

“They have normalized gender-apartheid,” said an Afghan women’s rights activist who did not want to be named in this article, fearing the Taliban’s persecution.

“This is a new norm in Afghanistan, however insane and destructive it may look in the rest of the world,” she added.

In January 2022, the U.S. Department of State appointed Rina Amiri as the special envoy for Afghan women, aiming to garner international backing for Afghan women's rights.

Amiri has actively engaged with Muslim leaders, emphasizing the importance of women's rights in Islam, in hopes of influencing Taliban leaders.

Despite these efforts, there has been no indication from Taliban leaders of any intention to abandon their discriminatory policies against women. “There is no indication this will subside,” Amiri told a Congressional hearing in January.

Senior U.S. officials have also warned the Taliban that there will be no normalization in their relations with the international community unless they allow women to return to work and education.

Thus far, the Taliban’s response has been that they value depriving women of basic human rights more than having normal relations with the rest of the world.

Hong Kong can help link students in US, China 

FILE - A visitor sets up his camera in the Victoria Peak area to photograph Hong Kong's skyline, Sept. 1, 2019.
FILE - A visitor sets up his camera in the Victoria Peak area to photograph Hong Kong's skyline, Sept. 1, 2019.

Pandemics, climate change and other global challenges require nations and scientists to work together, and student exchanges are a great way to foster that cooperation.

Writing in The South China Morning Post, Brian Y.S. Wong explains that Hong Kong has a crucial role to play in connecting students in the United States and China. (May 2024)

Learn about religious accommodations in US colleges  

FILE - St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., March 16, 2022.
FILE - St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., March 16, 2022.

From prayer services to housing options and vegetarian meal selections, colleges in the United States offer ways to accommodate students of various faiths.

In U.S. News & World Report,Anayat Durrani explains how you can learn about religious accommodations at colleges and universities. (April 2024)

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